From TIME /Andrew Lee Butters/Beirut
Those of you who are long time readers of the Middle East blog will know that I am a great admirer of Lebanon’s native talent for marketing and advertising. But somehow those skills get turned to comic effect when applied to the country’s combative sectarian political and regional power struggles. (See the this post from about ad campaigns during the Lebanese political crisis in 2007.)
On Sunday, Lebanese go to the polls to determine whether or not the Hizballah-led opposition takes final control over the government and can turn the institutions of state away from American influence and use them to protect it’s anti-Israeli military wing.
But you wouldn’t know that from the latest round of posters and billboards appearing around Beirut. The real issue on the streets would appear to be: Can you support Hizballah and still be sexy?
That’s the subtext of this series of ads run by a Christian political party — the Free Patriotic Movement — led by a maverick ex-general who broke with the country’s mainline Christian parties and allied himself with Hizballah, the Shia Muslim “Party of God.” The FPM is betting that the best way to protect the dwindling Christian presence in Lebanon is to join forces with the rising tide of the East — Shia Islam, Iran and Syria. But that’s created a certain cultural unease among its supporters, who normally take their style tips from New York and Paris rather than Tehran and Damascus.
So ads by FPM — which uses orange as its signature color — feature attractive, trendy young people telling their peers to vote in English and French (not Arabic). My favorite of these (which disappeared before I was able to photograph it) read: Sois Belle et Vote (Be Beautiful and Vote) The ads seem to say: we may have made an electoral deal with people who wear beards and chadors, but no one will ever take away your tube top!
The FPM and Hizballah also accuse the American and Saudi backed parties as being rife with corruption, though in fact both sides are doling out money and flying in overseas supporters on a scale that will make this election the most expensive in Lebanese history. In this billboard, an opposition politician announces that “Achrafiyeh is Not for Sale” vaguely accusing the pro-American forces of trying to buy off this neighborhood in East Beirut. An angry photo-shopped satire of this billboard that was making the rounds on Facebook reads “Achrafiyeh is Not for P#%%$*s” using a vulgar word that rhymes with “wussies.” I thought this was amusing because chi-chi Frenchified Achrafiyeh, which happens to be home to Time Magazine’s Beirut bureau and many a lady who lunches, is definitely for p#%%$*s.
Hizballah itself isn’t campaigning very hard, in part because it doesn’t have to — its supporters are part of a cradle-to-the-grave mini welfare state that ensures their loyalty — but also so it doesn’t alienate its Christian allies with too much talk about Resistance, the return of the Hidden Imam, and the final destruction of Zionism. Here’s a Hizballah poster that went up around May 25th, the anniversary of the day that Hizballah liberated southern Lebanon from 18 years of Israeli occupation in 2000. Note the soothing, conservative production values, the unifying, patriotic slogan (“My land is worth more than gold”) and the effect: Hizballah is the party of safety, security, and independence.
On the other side of the political spectrum from FPM and Hizaballah is a coalition of Christian and Sunni Muslim groups known as March 14th. This refers to the day in 2005 when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in central Beirut to call for an end of the occupation of Lebanon by Syria, which is one of Hizballah’s main patron states. And though Syria left later that summer, and March 14th formed a government, the movement has had a tough time since then. March 14th leaders were humiliated when their American patrons abandoned them during the 2006 war with Israel. Then last spring, Hizballah fighters took over March 14th offices in West Beirut and forced them to accept a “National Unity” government in which Hizballah has veto power over all major decisions. Now, Hizballah is ahead in many polls, thanks to its alliance with FPM.
Still, March 14th is trying its best. This series of ads take a smarter-than-thou response to the FPM’s sexier-than-thou campaign. The above poster “I think there 14 I am” is surely brainy, but I wonder how many rank and file supporters get the English word play. The poster below: “Sois Egale et Vote” (Be Equal and Vote) hints that FPM’s “Be Beautiful and Vote” ads were sexist and shallow. But oh, it just so happens this March 14th girl is stunningly beautiful too.
The ironic part is that March 14th does have at least one really sexy politician, 26 year-old first-time candidate Nayla Tueni. Yet her handlers have toned down her good looks, perhaps to disguise her youthful inexperience. Here she looks down from a massive portrait like the Mother Mary of Sassine Square.
Tueni’s candidacy highlights another part of the March 14th strategy: they’re running several children of anti-Syrian politicians assassinated since 2005. Nayla’s father, Gibran, an MP and newspaper editor, was killed by a roadside bomb on his way to work in the winter of 2005.
Besides such gestures towards its martyrs, March 14th is also trying to remind voters of the past few years of upheaval that they blame on Hizballah: the street protests that sometimes turned violent, the bloody days last May when Hizballah fighters over-ran West Beirut, and the tire burning blockades that shut the country down. This burning tire billboard, produced by a party allied with March 14, reads: “There are some whose past is a shame to their present.” Coincidentally, the building on which it stands was damaged last year when a roadside bomb exploded near a passing U.S. Embassy vehicle.
Since the Doha political agreement that ended street fighting in Lebanon last spring, the country has been has been run by a compromise caretaker government that has turned out to be surprisingly effective. President Michael Sulieman, formerly the country’s top general, installed technocratic officials who have avoided choosing sides in the cold war for Lebanon’s soul and set to work actually trying to run the country. In particular, they launched a quality of life campaign aimed at curbing self-destructive behavior on Lebanon’s roads — where stop lights, speed limits, and and one way traffic signs are more often than not treated as optional. Surely this billboard — placed by the Ministry of the Interior — offers the best advice for Lebanese worried about their future after the elections: fasten your seatbelt.